Humanitarian exchange (2): Congress and negotiations A gentle but firm rebuke of Chávez
Jan 212008

This is the conclusion of last week’s posts about the FARC hostage crisis and the humanitarian accord negotiations.

4. All serious facilitation efforts should be allowed to go forward until one, or a combination, is acceptable to both parties. There are many possible actors to choose from.

“Wanted: Mediator For Peace With FARC,” reads Marcela Sánchez’s Washington Post online column from Friday. “An International Mediator for the Exchange” is the title of an op-ed by former U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette that appeared Sunday in Colombia’s El Tiempo. Frechette writes:

This is an excellent moment for the Colombian government to consider utilizing a distinguished non-Colombian, respected by both sides and neither a member of a government or of an international organization, to negotiate the release of all persons held by the FARC. This could be a distinguished European, Latin American, or an American. The negotiator would have to be trusted by both sides in order to achieve a mutually acceptable solution.

Both analysts are right. The Colombian government and the FARC cannot do this on their own. Someone (or some combination of people) in direct, constant contact with both sides must hammer out a compromise.

Currently, both sides have chosen to make their offers and counter-offers in public, with blustery, highly politicized declarations. These offers are then routinely rejected in public statements. When they occur, private communications move slowly, as even small proposals can take weeks or months to get a response.

A real effort toward compromise would require one side to ask the other, “what would you change about our proposal (for instance, our proposal for a demilitarized zone)?” and get a quick reply. Such a conversation, however, must occur in private and must be guided by a trusted third party or parties.

This “middleman” (or “middlepeople”) can play a “good offices” role, shuttling messages back and forth or offering a venue for talks to take place. It (or they) can play a more active and authoritative “mediation” role, chairing talks, keeping both sides to an agenda and offering suggested compromise proposals.

Several parties, both foreign and domestic, offer strong possibilities. Nearly each has unique comparative advantages and drawbacks.

  • The Colombian Catholic Church. After Colombian President Álvaro Uribe “fired” Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez from his facilitating role in late November, his government said that the Church was the only party “authorized” to make contacts with the FARC. The National Conciliation Commission of the Colombian Episcopal Conference is pursuing those contacts. The FARC, which appears to regard the Church hierarchy as too close to President Uribe, has been responding slowly.
  • Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan government. Though Chávez is clearly the facilitator with whom the FARC would prefer to work, he grows more unacceptable to the Colombian government with each passing day.
  • The three European “friends” of the process. The governments of France, Spain and Switzerland have played a periodic facilitating role since 2005. They were the first to propose a smaller demilitarized “encounter zone” for humanitarian-exchange talks. On Sunday, President Uribe “re-authorized” these three governments to resume their facilitation role. On our visit to Bogotá, however, we heard frequent concerns that France – which was widely perceived as concerned about only one hostage, dual French-Colombian citizen Íngrid Betancourt – was coming to play a dominant role among the three countries.
  • Latin American neighbors, particularly Argentina, Brazil and Chile. The idea of the three Southern Cone giants playing a greater role, along with other regional states, is attractive. This “Contadora” idea is complicated, though, by these countries’ unwillingness to displace or confront Hugo Chávez and his prominent role. It also must confront perennial suspicions, in Colombia and elsewhere, of Brazil exerting undue diplomatic influence as the region’s “superpower.”
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC can offer its services as a means of transmitting messages between the two parties, as well as providing neutral spaces for direct dialogues to take place. The organization cannot, however, suggest or comment on proposals, a role that its mandate regards as too “political.”
  • An international organization, like the UN or the OAS. Both organizations have rich conflict-resolution experience, and both have expressed interest in contributing to a resolution of the hostage crisis. The Uribe government, however, continues to be wary of a UN role after a very rocky relationship with James LeMoyne, the last representative of the Secretary-General, who left in 2004 and was not replaced. The OAS is a possibility – Sergio Caramagna, the director of the mission monitoring the paramilitary demobilization, has offered his services in comments to reporters, and the organization played a role in the September recovery of the bodies of FARC hostages killed in June. However, the Colombian government hasn’t asked the OAS to help, and it is not clear whether such a proposal would have the Secretary-General’s approval.
  • Colombians with reliable communication channels. A small number of Colombian private citizens maintain some contact with the FARC leadership, thanks mainly to relationships cultivated during past peace processes. Two of these individuals, former Senator and cabinet Minister Álvaro Leyva and Communist Party newspaper publisher Caros Lozano, had the Colombian government’s approval to make contacts with the guerrillas until late 2006. While they lack the institutional backing to lead a process themselves, these individuals should be called on, if willing, to make contacts as fluid as possible and to offer likely compromise solutions.
  • U.S. members of Congress. The possibility of members of the U.S. Congress meeting with the FARC was addressed in an earlier post. They have the advantage of being figures with whom the FARC is interested in maintaining contact, and with whom the Colombian government is able to work. On the other hand, with busy legislative and electoral agendas, they cannot be expected to participate on a frequent basis – only at key moments.
  • Someone who has yet to appear. As Marcela Sánchez notes, the FARC process is missing a prestigious figure who can play the role that George Mitchell filled in Northern Ireland. She floats names like Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, or Bill Richardson. Frechette agrees that an individual with that level of international clout is definitely worth a try. But as one commenter on the El Tiempo website asks, “Mr. ex-ambassador, your comment is very timely, but who could that person be?”

Which facilitator, or combination of facilitators, offers the most hope of reaching a quick compromise and solution? (Uribe, for his part, says he favors the Colombian Church plus the Europeans.) There is simply no way to know.

For the moment, the most prudent course would be, as one interviewee on our trip put it, “to let a thousand flowers bloom” – to allow all serious, credible efforts to go forward unimpeded. The most appropriate combination of facilitators or mediators should quickly emerge.

5. Before any talks begin, discreet professionals must do a lot preparatory “staff work” out of the spotlight. Even if the Colombian government and the FARC are able to agree on some sort of zone for talks to take place, there is still no clear answer to the question, “What does the FARC want?”

Once the parties sit down, will the FARC demand only the release of a specific list of prisoners in Colombian (and possibly U.S.) jails? Or are their demands going to go farther afield?

In the recent past, the guerrillas have hinted that they might seek to tie the hostages’ release to removal from international terrorist lists, or even President Uribe’s resignation. For his part, President Uribe has even dangled the possibility of rewriting the constitution as an inducement to draw the FARC into talks.

If the government and FARC are truly to sit down and talk for a limited number of days, they cannot afford to waste time going down irrelevant tangents or springing surprise demands on each other.

Even if both sides manage to restrict the discussions to a humanitarian exchange, there will be a multitude of thorny issues to deal with at the table. The Colombian government will seek a FARC commitment not to kidnap again, will demand that released FARC prisoners not rejoin the group, and may perhaps extend its demands to include hostages whom the FARC has kidnapped for ransom. The FARC may call for the release of high-profile prisoners in U.S. jails, and the release of some prisoners accused of crimes against humanity.

These issues need not be resolved ahead of time, before the parties begin to negotiate and the clock starts counting down. But the groundwork must be thoroughly laid – the areas of greatest disagreement must be known ahead of time, proposals for potential compromise should be prepared, and all other issues that can be dealt with in advance, should be.

Getting minor issues out of the way and ensuring that no surprises lie in the wait are jobs normally assigned to staff: people who do advance work, develop agendas and worry about the details. The humanitarian exchange talks, should they occur, will also require staff doing the groundwork, “pre-cooking” as much of the accord as possible so that the negotiators need only deal with the most contentious issues. Staff should ensure that proposals for confronting these questions are already in place for negotiators’ consideration, and that unexpected, unrelated demands do not arise.

In other words, 90 percent of the work must be done before the negotiators themselves ever sit down. Those who do this work, probably in the employ of the mediators discussed above, must do it in private, far from the media and the public eye.

This, anyway, is what we heard often on our trip to Bogotá last week. There is a long way to go before a humanitarian-exchange negotiation can be successful. But the way is starting to become a bit clearer.

One Response to “Humanitarian exchange (3): mediators and “staff work””

  1. SJH Says:

    You know Adam, I don’t always agree with everything you say but you really nailed it with these last 3 posts, especially this one. Personally, I favor Bill Richardson as he has the experience and he speaks spanish. But, as you made clear, *my* preferences are irrelevant. I wonder 2 things:

    1. Who would the FARC find acceptable? and,
    2. Would the Bush admin pressure Uribe to accept someone like Richardson?

    Don’t think the first one has an answer yet and, sadly, I think the answer to the second is no.

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